Saturday, November 11, 2017
Michele Soavi made his debut in 1987 with ‘Stagefright’ (a.k.a. ‘Deliria’, a.k.a. ‘Aquarius’, a.k.a. ‘Bloody Bird’) which made effective use of its single setting (a ramshackle theatre). He followed this a couple of years later with ‘The Church’ (a.k.a. ‘Demons 3’), which also made impressive use of a single setting. If you’d been looking, in the late Eighties or early Nineties, for someone to helm an Italian language remake of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, I reckon he’d have done a bang up job.
By 1994, he’d put his stamp on the idiosyncratic black comedy ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (a.k.a. ‘Cemetery Man’) which uses a single setting – the graveyard – to quite brilliant effect for a good two-thirds of its running time before deconstructing in terms of its narrative, structure and theme (there is a case to be made that this was a quite deliberate decision) once it strays outside of this clearly defined environment and interacts with its larger fictive world in increasingly fragmented and bizarre ways.
In retrospect, ‘The Sect’ seems like a logical aesthetic transition for Soavi. While its most crucial scenes take place in the rambling rural home of protagonist Miriam Kriesl (Kelly Curtis), and in the architecturally improbable basement beneath it, the film opens with a ten-minute prologue set in California in 1970 before relocating to the Frankfurt of 1991. Or rather a version of Frankfurt that’s about as weirdly non-Germanic as Freiburg and its dance academy in Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. Just as California is represented by a nondescript landscape and the least convincing set of hippies you’re ever likely to see.
Moreover, the California-set prologue does nothing narratively except introduce a chapter of the titular sect active in America, thereby setting up a scene much later in the film where two chapters meet and the leader of one as much as says “oh, hi there, we’re your opposite numbers from the States”, when the script could just as easily have had them come in from, say, Berlin or Dusseldorf. Nor does the German setting make any sense (there isn’t a mythology akin to the Three Mothers of ‘Suspiria’ that requires geographical specifics) and everything that happens in the movie could have happened without a single alteration to the script if the setting had been Rome, Milan or Florence.
Nor do the next couple of sequences – a short and nasty murder in a suburban location, and an elaborate set-piece on a subway – add much to the story other than to establish that the members of the sect aren’t fucking around when it comes to disobedience and don’t flinch in their use of violence. They seem to be incorporated for no other reason than to big up the film’s epic scale after two smaller productions (‘The Sect’ had double the budget of ‘Stagefright’).
Once Soavi shunts his heroine onstage, however, and limits himself to her house, the cavernous spaces thereunder, the school she teaches at, and a nearby hospital, things bcome more focused. Even if the script does belabour her portentous meeting with enigmatic old cove Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) and take far too long to get to the weird shit that starts happening as a result of their meeting.
Credit where it’s due, though: the weird shit is certainly work the wait, whether it’s the surreal dreams that plague Miriam, full of crucifixion imagery and ‘Wicker Man’-style earth/nature/sex undercurrents, or the needlessly elaborate but memorable way that the sect isolate Miriam by removing from the board those few people who are close to her. The most striking and visceral example is their transformation of Miriam’s mousy colleague Catherine into a vamp trawling for rough trade at a truck stop …
… who bewitches a horny truck driver into murdering her. The scene plays out with all the sleaze, illogic and upended expectations that the description suggests. It’s also worth noting that the above screengrab shows the trailer said trucker is hauling. One can only assume that German HGVs are blessed with suspension and cornering of a spirit level bubble since not one single piece of freight is secured.
But then again, this is a film in which a hospital morgue is found in a leaky sub-basement area and looks like this:
So either Germany is the weirdest place on earth, with its dance academies and weird cults and people who drive VWs (ve must be in Cher-mahn-hee, ja, because Kelly Curtis is drivink ein VW), or it’s a safe bet Dario Argento had a hand the production. (He did: producer and co-scripter.)
But this is mere carping (mixed with a healthy dash of cheap sarcasm); ‘The Sect’ is an Italian horror movie made at the tail-end of that country’s several-decades run of great horror movies that were stylish-to-the-nines and narrative clusterfucks. ‘The Sect’ never achieves the visual gorgeousness of Bava or Argento at his best or even Fulci on a good day. But it has weirdness in spades, it has the chutzpah to cast Curtis (in her only lead role) for no other reason than she’s Jamie Lee Curtis’s sister, it casts Herbert Lom and basically gets him to do a Donald Pleasance impersonation, and it shoots for the moon in terms of an incendiary good vs evil finale that it has neither the budget nor the creative energy to achieve on the scale it good clearly wants to.
Oh, and it predates Lars von Triers’s ‘Breaking the Waves’ by five years as an example of a film that tries to con you in its closing moments that it’s deep concerned with a redemptive quasi-theological ending when it fact it was getting its jollies over the nasty stuff all along. With the crucial difference that ‘The Sect’ is a lot more fun to watch than ‘Breaking the Waves’.
Wednesday, November 08, 2017
As an Italian exploitation sub-genre, the cannibal film had its genesis in 1972 with Umberto Lenzi’s ‘The Man from Deep River’ which was basically a rip-off of Eliot Silverstein’s 1970 gruel-a-thon ‘A Man Called Horse’ with the native American Indians replaced by Brazilian cannibals. The cycle really got its groove on in 1977-78 with Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Last Cannibal World’, Sergio Martino’s ‘Mountain of the Cannibal God’, and Joe d’Amato’s ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ and ‘Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals’. The d’Amato films had more to do with T&A than flesh-munching, but – hey! – that’s Joe d’Amato for you.
Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of these particular productions, they provided the momentum for what was the annus mirabilis of the cannibal film: 1980. If Altamont was the defining socio-political moment whereby the free love ethos of the Sixties transitioned to the political disenfranchisement and social upheaval of the Seventies – a decade that, for all its turbulence, proved to be a cauldron of creative risk-taking and new movements in music, literature and cinema – then a case can certainly be made for the fact that the against-the-system attitude that characterised the Seventies gave way to the soulless greed-is-good yuppiedom of the Eighties, and that the path was cleared by a cluster of cannibal films, two of which would come to define the sub-genre and gain notoriety for their prominence in the “video nasties” controversy that came to eat up (pun intended) so many column inches later on in that piss-awful decade.
At least half a dozen cannibal films were made in 1980, including Jess Franco’s ‘The Devil Hunter’ and – notable for being one of the very few non-Italian cannibal opuses – Tsui Hark’s ‘We’re Going to Eat You’. But the two that came to define the sub-genre, and remain the colossi against which trash movie fans test themselves, were Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and Lenzi’s ‘Eaten Alive’. These two should really have been the cannibal movie’s “thank you and good night” moment, but this is exploitation cinema we’re talking about and as long as there was a hint of a buck to be made at the box office, some producer somewhere would sign off on another one. And thus it was that the cycle limped on intermittently till 1988 and the death rattle of Antonio Climati’s ‘The Green Inferno’ (a title borrowed over quarter of a century later by Eli Roth); these last few entries included Lenzi’s grim-as-fuck ‘Cannibal Ferox’, Franco’s ‘Diamonds of Kilimanjaro’ and Mario Gariazzo’s ‘White Slave’, a film so schizophrenically marketed that it appeared in some territories as ‘Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story’ and in others as ‘Cannibal Holocaust 2’.
The film under consideration today was made in 1985 and I’m not even going to try to pretend that it represents some last great throw of the longpig dice. But this is the Winter of Discontent and cannibal movies are just one of those sub-genres that have to be done – like gialli, polizia, nazisploitation, nunsploitation and anything that stars David Hess – and besides ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ was directed by Michel Massimo Tarantini (under the pseudonym Michael E. Lemick) and if the dude who helmed ‘Policewoman on the Porno Squad’ and ‘Women in Fury’ isn’t a natural fit for the Winter of Discontent then I might as well just give up and watch reruns of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.
‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ reunites Tarantini with ‘Women in Fury’ star Suzane Carvalho and gives her an equally thankless, frequently denuded and thoroughly sexually objectified role. After a very short career in exploitation films, Carvalho reinvented herself in spectacular fashion as a racing driver and I can’t help wondering how much her proficiency in this latter career was motivated by imagining Tarantini naked and clutching his extremities just behind the chequered flag as she powered towards him in several hundredweight of race-car …
But let’s park that image (again: pun intended) and stroll down the leafy expanse of Plot Synopsis Boulevard. ‘M in D V’ starts with respected academic Professor Ibanez (Leonidas Bayer) and his daughter Eva (Carvalho) arriving in a Brazilian backwater with the intent of seeking passage to the fabled Dinosaur Valley where Prof Ibanez can complete his palaeontological research. After a protracted first act which introduces fellow palaeontologist (or, to use his preferred appellation, “bone hunter”) Kevin Hall (Michael Sopkiw), Vietnam vet John Heinz (Milton Rodriguez) and his alcoholic wife Betty (Marta Anderson), photographer Jose (Joffre Soares) and fashion models Belinda (Susan Hahn) and Monica (Maria Reis), this mismatched bunch find themselves on the same light aircraft. A cockfight, a bar room brawl and some gratuitous nudity assists the viewer’s passage to this particular plot development, though no rationale is given as to why Jose and his models or the Heinzes are on the plane. Much is made, however, of the flight as off-the-books and into forbidden territory.
It hardly needs saying that the pilot encounters adverse weather conditions and
The survivors decide to make their way through the jungle, Heinz appointing himself leader on account of having done three tours in ’Nam. What follows is a “forty miles of bad road” type deal, as the group contend with leeches, snakes, cannibals, white slave traders, attempted human sacrifice and the gargantuan hindrance that is John Heinz and his planet-sized case of overcompensation. Example: Jose is set upon by piranha as the group splash through a river. Kevin plunges in to rescue him; Heinz sees his injuries as a liability and makes a brutal executive decision. Kevin attacks him and the two of them plunge into the selfsame piranha-infested waters, thrashing about for a good couple of minutes, all the time being resolutely untroubled by flesh-eviscerating fish. Quite what the piranha are doing the while – perhaps they’ve repaired to the opposite bank and started taking bets on the outcome – is left unanswered by the script.
As internal tensions within the increasingly depleted group reach boiling point, Kevin is split up from Eva and Belinda when the cannibal tribe attack. If I were trying to intellectualise this skeazy expanse of celluloid, I’d dwell on the fact that Eva and Belinda’s perils at the hands of the cannibal tribe occupy the middle third of the film rather than setting up its denouement, and they’re rescued by Kevin before much worse can happen than a flesh wound and some enforced nudity. Worse awaits them in the last twenty minutes or so when they fall into the clutches of slave-trader, unlicensed prospector and all-round sleazeball China (Carlos Imperial) who has designs on Eva, and his right-hand-woman Myara (Gloria Cristal) who gets all predatory towards Belinda.
Up to this point, ‘M in D V’ has unspooled through a fairly obvious checklist of exploitation tropes: it’s dealt in punch-ups, gun play, softcore sex scenes and mild peril, and throughout it all Tarantini and co. have maintained an aesthetic that could almost pass for good natured. For 65 minutes, ‘M in D V’ happily parades itself as one of the goofiest, least self-aware exploitationers you’ll ever see. Then the Tarantini of ‘Women in Fury’ steps up to the base and brings the nasty. Which is fair dues: let’s not forget what kind of movie we’re watching here. But the shift is abrupt and his attempt, in the closing scenes, to cut back to sub-Indiana Jones jokey pastiche only serves to emphasise the tonal inconsistency.
Ultimately, though, ‘M in D V’ is damned by its own irrelevance. The best of the cannibal films rubbed the audience’s collective nose in filth in order to make a point: viewer complicity in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’; the correlation between religion, brainwashing, sacrifice and manipulation in ‘Eaten Alive’. The slenderest of cases can just about be made for ‘Amazonia’ in respect of tabloid salaciousness and the exploitation of the exotic by those whose white privilege is its own ulterior motive. ‘M in D V’ adds nothing to the dialogue beyond its brisk pace and the appeal of a heroine who deserved to be more heroic.
Sunday, November 05, 2017
I had, of course, heard of Ottavio Alessi's 'Top Sensation' (a.k.a. 'The Seducers'). What self-respecting exploitation fan hasn't? I started watching it online a couple of years ago with an eye to a Winter of Discontent write-up. The print quality was so bad, however, that it was like having my eyeballs vigorously buffed with a Brillo pad. Never mind that there was a Rosalba Neri topless scene ten minutes in, I gave it up as a bad job. Now, though - thanks to Shameless DVD Releasing - 'Top Sensation' is available in a version that's not onerous to watch. Although, in an otherwise laudable attempt to present as complete an edit of the film as possible, they've shoehorned in every bit of recovered footage they could get their hands on and to say there are quality control issues with these inserts is putting it mildly.
Coming on like a lurid remake of Polanski's 'Knife in the Water' (made seven years previously) and pre-dating that ne plus ultra of sex-on-a-boat movies, Deodato's 'Waves of Lust' by six, 'Top Sensation' boasts two locations (yacht; island), lifestyle porn aplenty, and world-class eye-candy in the form of Rosalba Neri, Edwige Fenech and Eva Thulin. It's also utterly cynical and requires us to spend an hour and a half with some utterly venal characters - but, hey, that's exploitation for you!
Here's the basic set up: control-freak entrepreneur Mudy (author Maud de Belleroche in her only acting role) has hired loose-living couple Aldo (Mauricio Bonuglia) and Paola (Neri) to crew her yacht for the duration of a trip designed to provide R&R for her mentally troubled son Tony (Ruggero Miti). Mudy, despairing of the retinue of shrinks and specialists who have been unable to cure him, is convinced that he just needs to get laid. To this end, Aldo and Paola have been tasked with finding a girl suitable to this requirement. Dangling the promise of a big fat pay cheque in front of her, they have persuaded Ulla (Fenech) on board. The film begins in media res, the yacht a-sail, and all of these characters locked into a duplicitous game, the sexual tension simmering away.
Immediate complications are twofold: (1) Paola wants more from Mudy than just a one-off payment and will stop at nothing to get a cut of Mudy's latest business deal; and (2) Tony remains blandly disinterested in Ulla, proving that the boy really does have issues. Actually, make that threefold, since Aldo swiftly compounds things by running the yacht into a sandbank on account of doing the nasty with Ulla when he should have been navigating. Just when it seems like Mudy's on the verge of tearing all parties a new arsehole, Tony slips ashore and, when the others eventually find him, he's made the acquaintance of butter-wouldn't-melt farm girl Beba (Thulin) and they appear to be getting along famously.
Aldo, never one to miss an opportunity, discerns that if he can get Beba onboard the yacht and away from her boorish husband Andro (Salvatore Puntillo), then shenanigans of the salami-hiding variety between simpleton and shepherdess are a foregone conclusion. Beba is thusly, and in remarkably short order, seduced onto the yacht, seduced into a bit of lipstick lesbianism, and pimped out to Tony.
But before the lad can get devirginised, Andro turns up in a rowboat and 'Top Sensation' segues from pressure-cooker sexploitationer to something like Brian Rix farce leeched of the actual comedy. This weird tonal shift isn't the only problem with Alessi's film.
There are two main problems: the first is that Alessi, directing his second and last film after 1964's 'Whatever Happened to Baby Toto? ', achieves about as much visual style as a wall coated with slowly drying paint of a boring colour. It's not much to ask, surely, that a film with such a lurid story also be visually lurid? That a film whose main female leads are so voluptuously appealing also have appealing cinematography or production design? Christ, even the yacht doesn't look sleek and sexy – and when 70% of your film is set on a yacht belonging to a spectacularly rich person, this does not bode well.
Secondly, for a film that clocks in at just 90 minutes in the most complete edit that Shameless can manage, there aren’t half some dull patches! Endless scenes of Tony moping in his cabin, playing with toys like the man-child he is. Endless scenes of Mudy ranting at people and scowling. Endless scenes of … well, filler. Even the film's most notorious sequence – it involves Fenech, a photoshoot and a goat and I'm saying no more other than warning you upfront that once you've seen it, you will forever refer to 'Top Sensation' as “that film with Edwige Fenech and the goat”* – exists for no other reason than to pad out the running time.
In fact, stripped down to its actual narrative stepping stones – introduce everyone on boat and their motivations; establish that Tony isn't going to get jiggy with Ulla; get various parties to the island, thence to the boat; Andro turns up; everything goes pear-shaped - there's probably about half an hour's running time to be had out of the material. The rest of it relies on Neri and Fenech to look good in bikinis. Of course, it goes without saying that both of them ace this requirement. Indeed, Fenech – 21 when the film was released and on the cusp of claiming her crown as giallo goddess – is va-va-voom made flesh, while Neri gets to rock the kind of outfit that would make your average jeweler shut up shop and sneak home for a hour or two’s private time.
But for all that, it's de Belleroche's appearance that stays with me. Winner of the Prix Broquette-Gonin for her debut novel, she had published 'L'Ordinatrice' – generally considered her magnum opus – the year before she appeared in 'Top Sensation'. Which is kind of like Annie Proulx coming off 'The Shipping News' winning the Pulitzer and saying yes to a Rob Zombie job offer on the understanding that it involved a girl-girl scene with Kelly Brook. Now that'd be a Winter of Discontent flick!
*I'm not sure what the life expectancy of the average goat is, but I'm guessing the goat dined out on the story of most of the rest of said lifespan.
Thursday, November 02, 2017
Heard the one about the two guys driving a truck loaded with barrels of toxic waste and they’re so busy talking shit and not paying attention to the road that –
Yeah, Fulwood, we’ve heard it before. Like in the opening scene of ‘Eight Legged Freaks’.
Well, yeah, but with a crucial difference. So listen: there’s these two hillbilly dudes in a truck loaded with barrels of toxic waste and they’re having the mother of all politically incorrect conversations about how dating a guy is easier than dating a woman (“we didn’t disagree about anything, it was real easy – except for the sex: the sex was brutal”) when, as a result of not driving with due care and attention, they hit a deer. The impact jolts a barrel of toxic waste off the back of the truck, whereupon it rolls down into the river and –
FFS, Fulwood, we said we’d heard this one before. The toxic waste infects the water supply causing genetic mutation and zombie-type shenanigans.
Well, yeah, but listen to me, motherfuckers: this toxic waste turns the local beaver population rabid and when you try to fight them off, they prove functionally immortal. These beavers come back from the dead. Because they’re zombie beavers.
Hey! Hey! Where’s everyone going? Hey! Come back! Aw, c’mon, this kind of no-budget z-grade trash is why you hang out at The Agitation of the Mind and, brother, you know it!
Director Jordan Rubin and his co-scripters Jonathan and Al Kaplan know it, too. Well, not about The Agitation of the Mind, probably. In fact I’d be omigosh surprised if they’d even heard of this blog. But they know exactly what kind of audience they’re catering to and go all out to make exactly the kind of movie you anticipate (gleefully, with an underlying hint of guilt) when you see the title ‘Zombeavers’ on a DVD cover.
Let’s get jiggy with a plot synopsis, shall we? Shortly after the two sexually confused hillbillies lose the barrel of toxic waste, three coed friends (or rather frenemies, given the internal tensions) turn up at a lakeside cabin in rural America for a weekend ostensibly dedicated to helping Jen (Lexi Atkins) get over the heartbreak of her boyfriend cheating on her. Jen’s gal pals are bossy-little-thing Mary (Rachel Melvin) and trash-talking slapper Zoe (Cortney Palm). And if you think I’m being unfair in describing Zoe as a trash-talking slapper, just try spending five minutes’ screentime in her company.
No sooner have they taken to the lake (Zoe indulging in a spot of skinny-dipping) and fallen afoul of the locals than their boyfriends – or at least Mary and Zoe’s boyfriends and Jen’s now thoroughly cold-shouldered ex – turn up without invitation and with booze, partying and sex on their minds. Let’s meet The Three Douches. Jen’s asshole ex-boyfriend is Sam (Hutch Dano), Zoe’s obnoxious boyfriend is Buck (Peter Gilroy), and Mary’s slightly less douchey but still wanker-by-association boyfriend is Tommy (Jake Weary, who alone amongst the cast can actually claim a legimate film career on account of having been in ‘It Follows’*).
Buck and Tommy get their end away that night. Sam gets Jen’s kneecap in his gonads. Jen is startled in the bathroom by an aggressive beaver, which the guys dispatch with a baseball bat after some debate about who should tackle the creature. None acquit themselves as paragons of knight-in-shining-armour type behaviour. Next day, the sextet are at the lake when the zombeavers attack. Although Buck sustains injury, the group make it back to the cabin. The zombeavers lay siege. It’s the most pathetic siege in the history of horror cinema:
What follows is pretty much as you’d expect from a zombie film: foiled escape attempts, massively amplified internal tensions, gruesome deaths and the inability to get a mobile signal or find a functional landline (the visual punchline of zombeaver prints next to the severed cable is a nice touch). The drama around Sam’s dalliance behind Jen’s back is also resolved, and it’s touching to see that such a trashy outing as ‘Zombeavers’ can actually make time for its characters’ emotional closure before getting down to the business of their mortal closure. Hey folks, I’m kidding; the Sam/Jen thing merely allows for a bit of padding so that a short-as-it-is-anyway movie can just about clear the bar re: feature length.
Does it do anything unexpected, or anything new with the genre? Does it rug-pull with expectations or monkey with the formula? No, of course it fucking doesn’t! It’s a film called ‘Zombeavers’ – did you really expect it to be a game-changer?** It has zombie beavers and it makes no bones about the fact that they’re puppets (seriously: if Jim Henson had got fucked up on peyote and decided to make a movie that wasn’t for the kiddies, he’d have come up with exactly these furry-toothy-undead critters). It has a cast of college kids (albeit played by actors in their late twenties), so it features douchey behaviour and nudity. It’s a zombie movie, so people get chomped and/or eviscerated. Oh, and you know how the rules stipulate that those who are bitten become zombies themselves? Well, what do you think happens to people who are bitten by zombeavers?
You’re shaking your head now, aren’t you? Facepalming? Mumbling something along the lines of “oh, for the love of all things unholy, please tell me the filmmakers don’t actually go there”?
They go there. Of course they go there. This is a film called ‘Zombeavers’. Why would they not?
*Though I’ll be perfectly honest in admitting that I found ‘Zombeavers’ a far more rewarding film than ‘It Follows’.
**Although the closing credits song arguably is. It’s a brilliant piece of camp which recaps the entire narrative in the form of a Sinatra-esque swing number. Sample lyric: “Contaminated by toxic goo / A genetic mistake / They’re semi-aquatic, they’re hungry for you / Boys and girls, stay away from the lake”. Sample lyric #2: “Look out, they’re coming through the walls / Your girlfriend’s chewing off your balls / Zombeeeeeeeeavers!”).
Wednesday, November 01, 2017
Now is the winter of this blog’s discontent. Now is the time when we springboard from 13 For Halloween into two months of darkness, depravity and dubious content. Now is the time to sample the fruits of your humble reviewer’s annual trawl through everything that is strange, seedy, sordid, shameful and shocking. Now is when these unhallowed pages fill up with reviews rich in alliteration, hyperbole and cheap sarcasm. Now the time for copy hammered out under the influence of alcohol and moonlight. Now is the season of Mrs Agitation rolling her eyes and slowly shaking her head and wondering where the committal papers are.
Well be kicking off in fine style tomorrow, and carrying on for as long as your humble reviewer’s mental health holds out. Here’s a small sampling of things to come:
Well be kicking off in fine style tomorrow, and carrying on for as long as your humble reviewer’s mental health holds out. Here’s a small sampling of things to come:
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
I’d like to have been at the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, where a member of the orchestra had to turn the by-then stone deaf Beethoven round so that he could see the audience rapturously applauding. I’d like to have been at Knebworth in 1979 when Led Zeppelin basically demolished the entire punk movement in one epic show and the crowd adulated. And I’d like to have been in the production meeting at Jim Henson’s offices when someone floated the idea that the absolute best person to direct a kid’s film based on a Roald Dahl novel was the dude who made ‘Performance’, ‘Walkabout’, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and ‘Eureka’.
It goes without saying that Nicolas Roeg was the absolute best person to helm a Roald Dahl adaptation – no other filmmaker has tapped into the grotesquery of Dahl’s work with such gleefully scatological intuition – but nonetheless I can only imagine it was akin to a studio meeting today wherein an E.L. Stine property is being discussed and a lone voice of insanity lobbies really hard for Darren Aronofsky. The day after ‘mother!’ opened.
Many Dahl adaptations fail because they shy away from how fundamentally fucked up his stories are, or – pace Tim Burton’s stab at ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ – work too hard at trying to replicate the weirdness. Then we have the likes of Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’, which I walked out of after 40 minutes because (a) he just didn’t freakin’ get it, and (b) nobody involved had any Christing idea which decade they were setting it in. It was like watching an episode of ‘Electric Dreams’ where the main character gradually comes to realise he’s in an immediately recognisable but ultimately improbable simulation of England.
‘The Witches’ opens in Norway, its title sequence pulsating to Stanley Myers’ magnificently OTT score as Roeg’s camera whizzes over a snowy mountainscape. It’s like a mash-up of the opening credits scenes of ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘The Shining’ and it signals from the get-go that this isn’t going to be a typical kids’ movie. The first act has young Luke Evisham (Jaden Fisher) learning about witches from his eccentric grandmother Helga (Mia Zetterling, having the time of her life) while on a vacation to the old homeland with his parents. Fate intercedes and when they buy it in an offscreen car accident (this is a Roald Dahl story, and he never condescended to his readers about the essential unfairness of life), Helga relocates to England to look after him. A health scare sees Helga diagnosed with diabetes (yup, Roald D again: guy ain’t spoon-feeding ya) and advised to take a restorative break at a seaside hotel.
If Roeg’s vision of Norway is generally respectful (albeit a tad “chocolate box”), his take on England is pure satire, from the bicycle as the preferred means of transport to shiny red postboxes in picturesque village lanes by way of cheeky young lads who could have stepped living and breathing from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and insufferably pompous hoteliers whose establishments boast drab rooms and sticky buns. Speaking of the hospitality trade, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Stringer – his last great performance before he inexplicably embraced the moronism of ‘Mr Bean’, ‘Johnny English’ and all the other identikit rubber-faced pratfall roles he’s favoured for the last two decades – deliberately evokes one Basil Fawlty.
Into this parochial little England comes the Grand High Witch (a never-better Anjelica Huston). Under the guise of a fund-raiser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the GHW chairs a council of witches with the sole item on the agenda being how they can most effectively do the maximum amount of harm to children. Hint: it involves turning them into mice.
What follows – as Helga recognises the GHW as an antagonist of old, and Luke suffers the side-effects of a run-in with the witches – is as close as you’re likely to get to a live action treatise on the aesthetics and logistics of a cartoon on either side of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, and even ‘WFRR’ had to rely on a certain amount of traditional animation.
At its most manic and delirious, ‘The Witches’ is like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life with all of the not-for-the-kiddies sensibilities that description suggests. Its most astounding set piece is the aforementioned witches’ council, a sequence so extended that it virtually occupies the entire middle third of the film. In it, Huston’s GHW becomes so transported in her description of how the childrens’ fates will be effected that her vocal delivery and body language become almost sexual. This, twinned with the grotesque facial appearance of her true self (none of the witches can wait to shuck off their human disguises once they’re behind closed doors), makes for decidedly uncomfortable viewing.
Or take the scene where head chef Andre (Jim Carter) encounters an anthropomorphized mouse which tries to elude his anti-rodent attentions by running up his trousers. The ensuing comedy of embarrassments is more Brian Rix farce than kids’ film. Or how about the diversion the GHW creates at one point by sending a pram hurtling towards a cliff edge? In the office last week, during a conversation about favourite Halloween films, I intoned (in appropriate sing-song fashion) the line “real witches work only with magic” – several grown adults shuddered and told me not to.
Yes, Roeg was exactly the right person to direct ‘The Witches’. It’s a weirdly unconventional piece of filmmaking, in ways that it would take me an essay four or five times the length of this one to fully explicate; it’s not interested in traditional narrative functionality or even the requirement of having a hero; and it’s utterly committed to the macabre and the grotesque. It’s the ideal thirteenth in this year’s thirteen for Halloween.
Monday, October 30, 2017
The most useful facility the wannabe connoisseur of trash movies can develop is pragmatism. Trash movies are made quickly, on the cheap, with the sole object of turning a fast buck on very little investment. Low-rent advertising is the only kind available to the purveyors of such stuff, and often the most effective advert for the product is its very title. One learns to take lurid titles at face value, and steels oneself for disappointment.
So it was that I settled down to watch the film under consideration today, and as I hit play I intoned a small prayer: “Lord grant me the serenity to know that a movie called ‘The Naked Witch’, made in 1961 with a fifty-nine minute and seven second run time, can’t possibly deliver on the dual promise of its title and will in fact probably be hard pressed to tick even one of those boxes. Amen.”
Serenity was granted and I watched ‘The Naked Witch’ and drank a bottle of Adnams Broadside and sat down to write and objective considered review, and never once did I feel compelled to hurl something across the room, or beat my fists against the screen while choking out the sob-drenched words, “You cheap lousy bastards, you called it ‘The Naked Witch’ and I didn’t feel a single tingle in the place where it’s nice to feel a tingle, and I want those fifty-nine minutes and seven seconds back, God damn you! God damn you all.”
And thus co-writer/directors Larry Buchanan and Claude Alexander escaped damnation and my blood pressure remained at a safe level. Now here we are, 270 words in, and you probably have a couple of questions. Taking an educated guess, the first is: When the hell you going to quit procrastinating and actually turn in a review? The second: Why do you keep harping on about the running time?
Well, I’ll tell ya. The running time of ‘The Naked Witch’ is fifty-three seconds shy of an hour. That’s pretty short for a feature. You’d expect an almost breathlessly pacy narrative, wouldn’t you? A narrative that puts its head down and runs hellbent for leather in the general direction of the end credits, tossing out – even allowing for our dialled-down expectations – at least a few nudity- and witchery-driven set pieces along the way.
No. Fucking. Chance.
‘The Naked Witch’ opens with an eight and a half minute prologue where a narrator with all the vocal nuance and intellectual charisma of a half-inflated whoopee cushion being suddenly sat on gives what I would normally describe as a lecture on the history of witchcraft. Except that lecture suggests the imparting of information; the marshalling of verifiable facts into a coherent overview; the education of the listener. Instead, what our droning voiceover artist does – as the camera roams interminably over a Brueghel canvas – is blether a load of purple prose to the effect that witches are scary and do weird supernatural shit. For eight and a half bastard minutes.
Then we get the opening credits, which include a quote from Shakespeare. Voiceover dude intones the quote in the same lifeless fashion. He also manages to misquote it. We’re over ten minutes into the film at this point. More than one-sixth of its running time has been expended and literally fucking nothing has happened.
Surely, with somewhere in the region of forty-eight minutes left to play with, Buchanan and Alexander are really going to pull out the stops and throw this motherfucker into overdrive.
We open on a sports car navigating the picturesque roads of Luckenback, Texas. Its driver is bland all-American nobody of the lumberyard school of acting. The credits have identified him as The Student. But since I don’t want to type The Student every time I refer to this pencilneck, I’ll call him Brock. He looks like a Brock. Plus it rhymes with cock.
Brock is on his way to a small town which is still a demographic stronghold of the German settlers who came to Texas in eighteen-something-or-other (the voiceover kicks in again almost the second the credits are done with), and whose history Brock is researching for … something. Term paper, assignment, whatever the 1961 equivalent of a blog was. I don’t know. Something. I’d picked up my phone and played a couple of moves on Words With Friends at this point.
Anyway, to cut a long anti-narrative short, Brock fetches up in town, listens to the children’s choir sing the kind of song that was probably really popular in the Hitler Youth, finds lodgings, flirts with flaxen-haired mädchen Kirska (Jo Maryman) – one of the few characters the script can be bothered to gift with a name – but does nothing about it when she flounces into his bedroom in a diaphanous nightgown and asks if he wants to borrow her book on witchcraft. He says thanks, opens the door for her, and sits down to read the book. Smooth work, Brock, smooth fuckin’ work.
From the book, Brock learns that a woman wronged by one of Kirska’s ancestors was deemed a witch and executed as a means of silencing her accusations against said blackguard. Brock goes looking for the witch’s grave – which has a lot of loose topsoil for something dug in the 1600s – and inadvertently awakens her.
We are now thirty-four minutes into the film. The title character – yup, she’s billed as The Naked Witch (Libby Hall) – has only just shown up, and we’re left with twenty-five minutes and a few seconds to document her unholy vengeance, bring her into conflict with Brock, steer Kirska into a woman-in-peril scenario, and deliver a tense, exciting denouement. Oh, and throw in some nudity, too.
Granted, The Naked Witch (let’s call her Helga) gets straight to business by offing two of the townsfolk then going skinny-dipping. Meanwhile, Brock, realising what he’s done but not wanting to admit it to his hosts, does some research into the witch, first by visiting the library then by heading to some caves on the outskirts of town where the very comely librarian is convinced a purely theoretical witch, having been awakened from her deathless sleep, would logically go to ground. Heading towards the caves, Brock notices Helga skinny-dipping and having presumably rediscovered his libido stands and watches her for what feels like the combined running time of ‘Satantango’ and ‘Out 1’. She catches him watching, leads him to a cave, they make out a bit, she does a weird dance which is not only non-seductive but curiously emphasises how big her hands are, then they make out again. Brock falls asleep post-canoodling. We’re now four minutes from the end of the movie.
Four minutes for Helga to fixate on Kirska as the last victim in her campaign of retribution, Kirska to be lured into a perilous situation, and Brock to save the day. Hands up everyone who thinks the ending’s going to suck like a Dyson that’s just been given a flux capacitor upgrade?
That’ll be all of you, then.
Oh yeah, and that first question you had for me: what about the review? That was just it. Right there. Proof positive that the sleazier the title, the greater the need to manage one’s expectations. Now, does anyone have a copy of ‘Virgin Witch’ that I can borrow…?